In an exclusive interview with French fashion designer Sonia Rykiel, a portrait of an extraordinary woman emerges, as do insights into her playful, colorful and iconic approach.

Certain words come to mind along with the name Sonia Rykiel: stripes, pompoms, family, energy, a one-of-a-kind hairstyle, eccentricity and pure talent. Sonia Rykiel is the queen of the quirky, the knit sweater in boldly colored stripes, and an absolutely distinctive silhouette that is deeply Parisian, and particularly of Saint-Germain-des-Près style. Always at the heart of her time, Sonia Rykiel is keenly contemporary.

As a series of more than 200 drawings and private notebooks by Sonia Rykiel go on public display and sale for charity at the Galerie Catherine Houardin the Saint-Germain-des-Près district of Paris, took the opportunity to meet with this extraordinary mind, a French Grande Dame de la Mode, to discuss a broad range of subjects.

On her fashion philosophy:

I think, above all, that what I have done is not the way that is the fashion today. I’ve skipped fashion, I have made it into an ‘art de vivre’, a fashion to live. In the end this is what I call “démodé”. La mode becomes démodé. Démodé is really the adaptation of a piece of clothing to oneself, which is made by someone else and not necessarily for you, but that you appropriate for yourself. You take a piece of clothing from Sonia Rykiel, from Jean-Paul Gaultier, from Karl and you wear in it your own fashion – the unfashionable, the “démodé”, is that.

On the Sonia Rykiel style:

The biggest compliment I have ever received was by an Italian painter that I love a lot. One day we were in Venice and he asked me, “Why are you afraid of your collections? You will never be out of fashion. Your collections will always be on point.” I said to him, “Why do you say that? You don’t know what you’re saying, it’s impossible always to be on point”. He said, “But yes it is, for, your clothes are ‘quirky’, meaning sort of eccentric, scattered. That is to say that your clothes – you don’t put them on and that’s all, you have to arrange them, you play, you put on a brooch, you pull them here and there, or you put on a flower…There is a total universe surrounding your clothes, there is a total game and a game which is fun, which is like a playful insult and surprise to fashion”.

On working in fashion today:

There is really a problem in fashion if you look at all the collections and you no longer see them, there are no collections that interest you really; which is ridiculous because everywhere there are good things.

If you look at fashion in television, you become crazy because you can’t understand it. On television, it’s all styling. You take a girl, you put a black thing on her and under that, a blue thing, and under that a white thing and you put a large scarf and a hat, gloves and high healed shoes and it’s wonderful because she’s extraordinary this girl, but you can’t dress like that, its not possible, it won’t work. You have to find the real art, the way to dress in a manner that is eccentric, sophisticated, funny, and intelligent and, at the same time, pretty and personal.

I think there are a lot of things to put in order in fashion, because we are totally disordered. There are designers who are amazing, who make extraordinary things and others who are disconnected, who make whatever and that’s really terrible – I believe that there is too much of that. It’s necessary that we be much more serious and say what we need, what a woman needs.

On the “intelligent” dress:

What I try to do as much as possible, is to have clothing that follows the woman. The “intelligent dress” is that which is going to marry the woman who wears it, is going to play a game. At the same time, it’s important that the woman plays the game too, but also that she be serious, she doesn’t have time – she accompanies children to school in the morning, she goes about her day. It’s necessary that the dress be intelligent. It says to her: put on your belt, put on your brooch. It’s funny, because I have always said that a dress doesn’t speak, but I’m always waiting for it to speak and, until this moment, it hasn’t yet spoken to me.

On women who are really Rykiel:

I don’t know if you should say the Parisian or, rather, the woman of Saint-Germain-de-Près – the woman who is of the world. There is a following of women who are really Rykiel. You find them everywhere in the whole world wherever you go, you find a Rykiel. She often has a beret, short hair, sometimes wearing a shoulder bag. For me, it is the quintessential woman.

I often think how this woman has become international, worldwide. It’s something that I think about a lot, I have always thought that it’s necessary to be in accord with the world. I am very political, that is to say that I have the feeling that we must, as women, be engaged and politics concern us.

On the woman she designs for:

I like the sublime woman, very beautiful, who all of a sudden lets herself turn into a chiffon doll, as if we need to take her, as if there were a man who should be there all the time in order to take her and say to her, “But no my dear, it’s alright, you are magnificent.”

On Nathalie Rykiel, her daughter:

Ever since I’ve worked in fashion I’ve always put, before all, the first name of Nathalie in my notebooks, always, elsewhere you see, I have a lot of sheets of paper with Nathalie’s name on them. It’s not a total osmosis with us but it is osmosis. We are really close. Very often when I say something and I call Nathalie to ask her what she thinks, she says exactly the same thing as I did.

On her start in fashion:

It’s incredible, but it was not my wish in life to do fashion, it was really not what I wanted to do. It was outside of all I could have imagined for myself. I come from a family too bourgeois, very Jewish, where fashion was not an issue. When mother took us to buy clothing, it was enough that she let us look at them, never would we say: I prefer that or that – she didn’t want that. Then I found myself Queen of Knitwear without really knowing what knitwear was, and it started like that.

On the Sonia Rykiel collaboration with H&M:

While it was not the same quality, there was a quality of work and craftsmanship – accurately done, thought out, calculated, with exact striping and coloring. With H&M, it was really a great association, particularly in terms of transgenerational appeal, which has always existed in my company. It’s really rare that a mother who comes into our store with her daughter doesn’t buy anything for her, or the contrary. It’s a reciprocal desire. Perhaps the clothing itself is made in such a way that it is universal; I exaggerate when I say that (I don’t mean it in a pedantic way). I take it like this: as if it were eternal or something that was made to last, something which is made for living.

On drawing:

I draw by accident really. I began to make drawings about a dozen years ago, maybe even more because it amused me. When I draw for fashion work they are not at all the same drawings. For fashion, the drawings are much more finished which correspond to a finished piece of clothing, to an idea. There’s a lot of irony. I can make up to 40 in a day, that’s a lot. I have made twenty a day during certain periods, often.

It grounds me; I am, I believe a creator really, that is to say that I pass my time inventing, creating, in finding and that grounds me. When I do a drawing, and I finish it perfectly, I add color, I look for color, I think that that allows me to be centered and that’s important, for, I am a woman who is, who lives, always on two different levels. When I live, I think. I hear music and I say to myself, that’s magnificent but that could work for a collection. When I read a book I say to myself, that’s magnificent but I could begin the next book. So it’s like that, and drawing finally stops me.

It’s a way of expressing myself that is very intense. It’s not a small thing, finally. I give a lot when I make a drawing…it allows me to enter into different places.

About exhibiting her drawings for the first time:

Actually, it's the people around me who told me: “Stop, you are going to exhibit your drawings, it is out of the question that you don’t show them,” they said. That happened two months ago. They told me this young woman Catherine had a gallery and is very charming. Therefore they banded together, they told me, “We want your drawings, we want them”. And there you go. I should also mention that I did a lot for charity with my drawings.

June 4th through July 24th, 2010
“Sonia Rykiel Dessine...”
Galerie Catherine Houard
15, rue Saint-Benoît75006 Paris

On seeing:

I was raised in a Russian family, and in the summers I lived with my aunts and uncles in a large house near Fontainebleau. My uncle adored painting; he always led me to the sea shore, where he went with his paintbrush, and there he spoke to me of everything, he told me: “Look pointedly with your eye and you will see what you are to do. You will see like that.” And so I have lived with colors, in this type of milieu, largely intellectual, where we really looked at things and that each thing that you looked at, finally, there were things which slipped away, or which emerged….

On words:

You know, it’s the words that touch me the most? More than the dresses, more than the drawings. It’s always the words that do it. I’ve begun a dictionary though it’s not ready yet to be published.

And the future:

At this moment, me, I’m overwhelmed by what’s happening in fashion. I think that for the instant nobody has found where we are going, what we can do, what we can invent, what are we to do, what more can we bring to it? I believe it has been too fast, we don’t stop for one season. One t-shirt then implies at least 20 t-shirts per year and I think that there is totally work to redo around fashion, around dress, around thought, around the way of being, to exist, dress and to think. It’s necessary to find how to evolve. I would love to do a hot collection and a cold collection, simple as that.

On being faithful:

I am very faithful; I have always been very faithful. You know, when I love people, I love them, when I love something, I love it. However, I really love change. I can make sweaters for 25 years, which are exactly the same but not at all; they seem almost the same but they are not. You have the impression that I make the same sweaters, but they are never the same. “Et qui n'est, chaque fois, ni tout à fait la même Ni tout à fait une autre” (And which isn’t, each time, neither totally the same nor totally another); the poet Paul Verlaine said this.

Sonia Rykiel’s definition of luxury:

"I should construct my book, I dare not say ambitiously like a cathedral, but more simply like a dress."

In fashion, people always ask about luxury or, more specifically, about physical luxury. They ask about the expensive, well-made, high quality bits and pieces that to so many represent the ultimate indulgence. They are not wrong to do so: that indulgence can be sublime. I, for example, have almost lost my mind at times in search of it: I have hunted for slabs of black chocolate engrained with hazelnuts; at casinos, I have lost all my money because I have been fascinated by the slivers of expense almost falling off women across the table from me, and I have run bare-footed after caviar pearls, cigars ringed in diamonds, and chocolate hearts tied in red ribbons. I am lucky that I have lived with these things, but ultimately I believe that its pertains to living in a certain way, rather than owning certain things. I have, over the years, lived by a set of rules, my commandments of luxury:

Live your life as if it were a novel.
Embrace simplicity.
Wear fake as if it is real.
Realise that there are five elements, not four: earth, air, water, fire and flesh.
Know that luxury is solitude, and give yourself time: retreat for two days as if they're your entire life.
Be loved.
Never miss your cue.
Push away the shadows.
And above all, allow yourself the luxury of seduction.

If luxury were an object ?

A brooch. This specimen of a thing that I put on me in order to tighten myself up, to dress myself, to go to an evening or, to the contrary, to go shopping, to go to school. It would be fake but you can have ten or 12, me I have 25.

A person ?

It would be a man I live with, and my children. It’s to have children and this man. It’s important.

Related Articles

Style Specifics
La Parisienne
Allure...a certain "Je ne sais quoi"

More Info